By Gianna Albaum

“Oh, Missouri! The tragedy occurred near Pierce City … The young [white] woman was found murdered. Although it was a region of churches and schools the people rose, lynched three negroes — two of them very aged ones — burned out five negro households, and drove thirty negro families into the woods.” — “The United States of Lyncherdom,” Mark Twain

This short story, not published until more than a decade after Twain’s death in 1923, is one of Twain’s more interesting and candid works. A humorist who knew not to bite the hand that fed him, Twain often found himself consciously self-censoring his work, redacting his own colorful language and replacing it with more banal phrases. However, later in life as he became more and more frustrated with the state of the nation — by the turn of the century, the United States had emerged victorious from the age of industrialization and started interfering with far-off countries — he started writing political works, some that he published and some — like “The United States of Lyncherdom” — that were not disseminated until after his death.

Most of the critique appears to rest on shallow grounds — Twain refuses to condemn lynching as a moral outrage, preferring instead to appeal to the reader’s patriotism, to practical considerations, and to abstract notions of justice. “And so Missouri has fallen, that great state!” he writes. “Certain of her children have joined the lynchers, and the smirch is on the rest of us.” While this appears to avoid the crux of the issue, discussing lynching as a stain on a reputation rather than a crime against humanity, it is this very shallow type of critique that leads him to his profound and biting conclusion.

Later in the essay, Twain objects to the argument that lynching is a ‘deterrent’ on empirical grounds: “[A]ny strange and much-talked-of event is always followed by imitations, the world being so well supplied with excitable people who only need a little stirring up to make them lose what is left of their head and do things which they would not have thought of ordinarily … that, in a word, the lynchers are themselves the worst enemies of their women.”

He also denies the argument that men “enjoy the spectacle and are glad of a chance to see it,” adding that “The people … would be cruelly pained by such a spectacle — and would attend it, and let on to be pleased with it, if the public approval seemed to require it. We are made like that, and we cannot help it.”

Because he employs this type of reasoning in his essay, he inevitably concludes that lynching is not a consequence of ‘bad apples’ but rather of the ‘sheep mentality.’ “It must be that the increase [in lynchings] comes of the inborn human instinct to imitate … The abolitionists remember. Privately the public feeling was with them early, but each man was afraid to speak out until he got some hint that his neighbor was privately feeling as he privately felt himself.” In some ways, this is a more profound critique of lynching than a typical condemnation because it leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that at the wrong time and in the wrong place, we might ourselves participate in a lynching. Even as his critique appears to let individuals off the hook, it implicitly accuses the human race — and all of his readers — of having the seed of evil within, ready to sprout at any moment.

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